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A Look at Paralegal Employment Options
Your skills provide the foundation for a variety of careers.
(Originally appeared in print as "Roads Less Traveled")
Paralegals come in many forms and take their careers in many different directions. From state senator to musician and business entrepreneur to senior case manager for the largest class action in history to director of quality and risk management, the four paralegals profiled in this article have taken the skills they acquired as legal assistants and put them to extraordinary uses. Although they each chose very different career paths, the one thing they have in common is that their paralegal backgrounds have provided the road map for their successes.
From Law Office to Capitol Hill
Georgia State Senator Mary Squires is on her 45-minute commute home from another hectic day at the office. Her phone has been ringing all day with calls from the press seeking her opinion on President George W. Bush’s immigration plan. The drive home is one of the few times of the day Squires can stop and reflect on her accomplishments as a state legislator and her goals to become a U.S. senator.
The political arena is nothing new to Squires, who grew up surrounded by politics. Squires’ father is a lobbyist and, intrigued by his work, she started volunteering for campaigns at age 10. “I have always been interested in politics,” Squires said.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Squires got her start as a research assistant to a lobbyist after graduating from the University of South Florida in 1980, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. In 1982, Squires’ father said he would pay for her to go to law school or get her paralegal certificate. “I had no interest in practicing law, so I went to paralegal school,” she said. “I thought it was probably the type of job I could work in good or bad times.”
Squires graduated from the National Center for Paralegal Training in Atlanta with a certificate in general legal studies in 1984 and started working as a paralegal in the real estate and mortgage sector. Two years later, Squires joined the Georgia Army National Guard as the military equivalent of a paralegal. She served as an officer in the Signal Corps and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Corps until 1996.
With extensive military experience and a background in law, Squires seized the opportunity to run for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1998 and was successful. Her first year in the House was instrumental in paving the road for her political career. She was the first freshman legislator to introduce a House Bill, (which provided that persons acting as notaries for a petition can’t also act as circulators of such petitions) and it subsequently passed. Squires said she owes the success of passing the bill to her paralegal training. “I would encourage any legal assistant not to think their legal experience is inferior. Their legal experience is actually superior for policy making.
“It really served me very well because I knew what kind of legislation I needed to introduce. I knew sections of the code of Georgia very well, and I introduced legislation to repair laws. I see the big picture pretty clearly. I like repairing laws and making policies. I know how to do it, and to me it’s very clear. My knowledge and expertise I mostly gained as a paralegal has made me one of the most successful legislators in the past six years.”
Squires has been so successful she was elected to state senate in 2002 after two terms in the House, and is currently the only Democrat running for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat in November’s election (www.marysquires.us). Entering the race for U.S. Senate so early into her term as state senator was not her original plan, but with the current U.S. senator retiring and no Democrats planning to run, Squires decided to go for it.
Squires said campaigning for U.S. Senate “has been a joy. It’s a position I am passionate about.” Her dedication to change and providing a better future for everyone has parlayed into support from people she meets on the road while campaigning.
“When they meet me, we get along great,” she said. “When I am meeting people, I instantly gain support. I think that is wonderful.”
As a single parent with two sons (ages 14 and 10), Squires said she understands the struggles of working families. This understanding drives her to fight for the rights of Georgia citizens hit hard by tough economic times. “In Georgia, jobs have been lost. We are losing huge segments of our state because of no jobs … I am a fighter and completely determined to turn things around,” she said.
Squires also is dedicated to issues related to the war on Iraq. “One of the biggest concerns is that enlisted troops, the bulk of the fighting force in Iraq, are not expected to re-enlist when they return stateside … If these people don’t re-enlist, we will not have a sufficient army to defend our borders. It means we will be drafting again in three years at a minimum. No parent, no grandparent can let a bunch of guys with no military experience do this to our kids,” she said.
Squires is hoping her 10 years of military experience (which is more than the other four Republican candidates in the race have), and her understanding of military and legal issues will help distinguish her as a candidate ready to tackle the issues the nation faces today.
Until November, Squires will continue to spread the word about her ideas for change and a better future while keeping her family a priority. “[My sons] are the number one reason for everything I do,” she said. “It does not hurt for boys to see a strong mom.”
From Law Office to Health Care
In the world of health care, it takes a determined and strong individual to keep doctors and health care professionals on task and accountable for their actions. That is where Diane Sharer comes in. As director for the office of Quality and Risk Management and the assistant regional compliance officer for the Texas Tech University Health Science Center in Odessa, Texas, Sharer has turned her career as a paralegal into a management position in the often-intimidating field of health care.
When Sharer started her paralegal career in 1977, she was not certain about what direction to take. After two months working for a solo practitioner, Sharer earned an associate’s degree in applied science, and in 1993, she earned a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies from McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. “When I first started working, I was young, 22, and it was different back then. It was sort of one of those things where I had never done legal work before, but I was fascinated by it. I was always interested in the field,” she said.
In 1980, Sharer took the National Association of Legal Assistants’ CLA exam and became certified. At first, Sharer worked in real estate and then became interested in trial work. “It was just the excitement of it. It was always something different,” she said.
In 1989, Sharer was certified (CLAS) as a specialist in civil litigation by NALA, and when the state of Texas offered the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1994, she chaired the civil trial commission, something she continues to this day.
About seven years ago, Sharer decided to move her career in a different direction by taking a position with the Texas Tech Health Science Center. “My work has evolved. I no longer work in a traditional law firm. Although I work with attorneys, we are self-insured,” she said. “We handle anything to do with professional liability or medical malpractice. We represent the doctors in their own cases.”
Sharer is actively involved in the cases her office works on. Her primary area is in managing the risk and helping investigate the cases. “I don’t think I would ever go back to a traditional law firm,” she said. “I still use the things I learned, and it’s still an aspect of civil litigation, but I don’t have to worry about billable hours and all that stuff. Also, I can work on the defense side. I never was much for the plaintiff side.”
As director of quality management, Sharer monitors health care. “I strive to ensure the quality of care is maintained at a high standard through quality management,” she said.
Another aspect of Sharer’s job is to be a regional compliance officer. “Compliance can be a lot of things. In the health care field, it’s compliance with billing and documentation. You have to document patient records in order to bill. I check the records and make sure everything is correct,” said Sharer, who also is certified in compliance.
Even with all this work, Sharer finds time to chair the Legal Assistants Committee of the State Bar of Texas, a standing committee organized to promote and assist the legal profession in the use of paralegals. The committee is made up of roughly 80 percent attorneys and judges and 20 to 25 percent paralegals, Sharer said.
Currently, Sharer is working toward getting a master’s degree in health care administration, which includes many courses such as business management, she said.
While Sharer no longer works in a law office, she uses the skills she learned as a paralegal everyday. “Working for a small firm, I had so many responsibilities and was exposed to many areas of the law,” she said. “Those early years gave me the most valuable education that I would not trade for anything. Not only did I gain valuable analytical, research and investigative skills, but the ability to deal with various personalities and the pressures of a stressful work environment that has continued throughout my career. Such skills are essential to being successful in my current employment.”
From Law Office to Recording Studio
At only 27 years old, Michael Rojas, Jr., has a long list of credits including musician, business entrepreneur and paralegal. Growing up in Los Angeles with a father famous in the Latin music world, drummer, Mike Rojas, Sr., it was only natural Rojas would be interested in a career as a musician. At the same time, something about the legal profession was calling him. Perhaps law symbolized the values for equality and fairness Rojas’ father instilled in him as child. “He [my father] developed a campaign for the rights of Hispanic musicians,” he said. “I grew up writing petitions to get Latin music on the airways in the ’70 and ’80s. I had that embedded in my mind: work smart, not hard, to get your fair share.”
Getting his fair share and making sure others do as well is Rojas’ goal and one of the reasons he decided to become a paralegal. In 1996, after earning his associate paralegal degree from Phillips College in Van Nuys, Calif., and working for attorney Bruce Goldberg, Rojas opened his own paralegal firm, Legal Justice For All. “He [Goldberg] was my mentor for four-and-a-half years. He basically encouraged me to start a program to assist people in basic legal work. It was so successful it ranked in the top 100 Hispanic businesses for three years in a row,” he said.
To get his business on Hispanic Magazine’s Hispanic Entrepreneur 100 listing in 1997, 1998 and 1999, Rojas first got the name of his company out to attorneys by placing advertisements touting the freelance paralegal services his company provides. “I saw the need for limited and fast, temp work,” he said. “A lot of times, attorneys don’t need a full-time paralegal. They hire me for specific things and pay me an hourly rate or in blocks of time. It’s more economical for a solo attorney to hire me on a case-by-case basis rather than hire full-time legal assistants with salaries, benefits and insurance.”
The business took off quickly, but Rojas has kept his operation small. Although he has hired a few assistants, Rojas does all the legal research himself.
Extending his paralegal services further, Rojas represents entertainers and musicians through his music production and marketing company, Ace Productions Entertainment Group. “Music and legal work came hand in hand,” he said. “I prepare management agreements, license agreements and distribution agreements. I do the legal research and prepare the legal documents for attorneys to review, and they put their stamp of approval on it.”
Rojas was nominated for the Small Business Administration “Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1997, and that same year was the executive producer for the “Sopa De Ritmo” (Rhythm Soup) album, which sold more than 300,000 copies and received nine Grammy nominations. Rojas is currently focused on a new Latin band comprised of four teenage boys recently signed with the label USC Records and Tapes. The band, called Kreacion De Mentes (Creation of the Mind), will release its first album in March.
Relating to musicians is easy for Rojas, not only because he grew up around them, but also because he is a hip-hop artist who has released two albums of his own under the name Criminal Ace. “I fight for the rights of injustice,” Rojas said.
The fight for equality and a better future was on Rojas’ mind when he started a program called Down with Peace, backed by the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Down with Peace is a motivational campaign that brings recording artists to juvenile detention centers to encourage the kids who are locked up to stay out of trouble and stay in school. “It gives them a little motivation,” Rojas said.
Even though he is just one man, Rojas is determined to continue the fight to bring everyone their fair share. He currently is deciding his next step professionally, which will include either going back to school to get his master’s degree in business or his juris doctorate to become an attorney. In the end, Rojas hopes to follow in the footsteps of one of his role models, Ruben Blades. Blades is a Harvard graduate, musician, actor, political activist and lawyer. “He is one of my heroes,” Rojas said.
From the Law Library to the Largest Class Action in History
It takes a brave person to willingly take on the task of organizing 15 million pages for one of the largest class action litigations in history, but that is exactly what Patrick Rogan, paralegal for Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes and Lerach in New York, has done. As senior case manager in the Initial Public Offering (IPO) Securities Litigation, Rogan has taken on an essential role in this large case — this from a man who decided to enter the paralegal field because “everyone was thinking paralegals were the up and coming thing. It wasn’t for any great love of the law,” he said.
After seven years in military service, Rogan decided to attend night school at the National Academy of Paralegal Studies to earn his paralegal certificate. He began his paralegal career in 1995 by working in the library at Davis and Gilberg where he was a librarian assistant. In this job, Rogan learned the value of research and organization.
Rogan quickly proved his ability at organizing, planning and preparing documents for attorneys and within nine months, moved into a position as a litigation paralegal at Davis and Gilberg.
Rogan continued in litigation and started working at Milberg Weiss in April 2001. The first case Rogan worked on with Milberg Weiss involved a high-profile securities litigation, and although he started when the case had already begun, he easily took control of the file and brought a high level of organization to a case involving hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.
“Patrick Rogan truly exemplifies the ultimate para-professional. He is intelligent, reliable, diligent and unrelenting when it comes to seeing a task through to its completion,” said Ariana Tadler, partner at Milberg Weiss and Rogan’s supervising attorney.
For the past few years, Rogan has been working diligently on the IPO Securities Litigation. Rogan volunteered to work on the case after a different case he was working on was wrapping up. The IPO case involves 309 separate securities class actions involving more than 300 IPOs coordinated before Judge Shira Scheindlin of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. The lawsuits allege that IPOs were manipulated by investments banks to artificially inflate the market price of securities and to conceal the amounts of compensation received by the underwriters. With more than 1,000 plaintiffs and 1,000 defendants, it’s a daunting task to take on the many documents involved.
“We recently started the discovery phase,” Rogan said. “My biggest part is organization. There are 15 million pages, and keeping that organized is quite a job.”
Technology is the key to keeping everything running smoothly, Rogan said. Although he can’t say what specific programs the law firm uses to organize the documents, he said they use a combination of four primary tools based on databases. Once a document comes in the door, there is a specific process the paralegals must follow. “It goes into what we call a pipeline,” he said. “It’s all very high tech.”
Learning the technology necessary to keep this case organized was simply a matter of necessity, Rogan said. “For the most part, you have to learn it if you want to be successful,” he said. “Sometimes you have to show an attorney you can use technology to get organized and not get bogged down.”
Rogan heads up a team of six other paralegals in the IPO Securities Litigation. He is responsible for delegating, coordinating and supervising the tasks of the other paralegals along with finishing his own assignments. The teams work hand in hand and rely on each other to keep the case as organized as possible. “I have a very good team of paralegals overall. They use initiative and get things done,” he said.
While the idea of shifting through millions of pages of documents for one case might not be appealing to everyone, Rogan prefers it. “Sometimes you can get in a situation where you are at a firm and have six or seven small cases,” he said. “The thing I like about being on one big case is all you have to worry about is one case.”
As for the future of the IPO Securities Litigation, Rogan doesn’t know how much longer the case will continue, but for now, he is happy with the work he has done and how his team of paralegals is contributing to one of the largest class action suits in history.
Taking Your Career to New Levels
The possibilities are endless for paralegals who want to take their careers to new heights. As these four paralegals have shown, a background in the law office can take you virtually anywhere. The skills gained on the job, from organizational to technological to professional, provide a firm foundation for a myriad of career opportunities.
As Squires said, “If you have ambition beyond being a paralegal, a paralegal background is one of the best backgrounds you can possibly have.”
Rachel Campbell is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, and is a former associate editor of LAT and Law Office Computing. Campbell graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in print journalism.
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